The Norumbegan Quartet, Volume 3: The Empire of Gut and Bone. By M.T. Anderson. Scholastic. $17.99.
Movie for Dogs. By Lois Duncan. Scholastic. $5.99.
It turns out that M.T. Anderson had been constructing a four-book series about a peculiar interstellar war, featuring two Earthbound friends and two different but equally obnoxious alien races, all along. Who knew? Apparently not Anderson, who only reveals in The Empire of Gut and Bone that the two previous books were the first half of The Norumbegan Quartet. Those books, The Game of Sunken Places and The Suburb Beyond the Stars, seemed to veer wildly and not always coherently from place to place and time to time. The first, Anderson’s revision of a book he originally wrote in the days of “Dungeons and Dragons,” introduced friends Brian Thatz and Gregory Stoffle, “two lobes of the same brain,” and took them through an elaborate role-playing game that turned out to have Earth hanging in the balance because the game was, in reality, being played with the boys as surrogates for two alien races. Luckily, Brian realized that and the game ended in a way that saved Earth and put Brian in charge of the next game. But then Anderson shifted gears, abandoning the “game” idea altogether and turning the second book into a weird but foundationally ordinary alien-invasion story – since the losing race from the first book (the Thusser) had decided to cheat, rendering the whole “game” superstructure irrelevant. In The Empire of Gut and Bone, Anderson seems finally to have discovered the direction in which he wants these books to go, with the result that this third volume knits together many of the unclear elements of the earlier books while advancing the story neatly. Here, Brian and Gregory have gone through a portal to the world of the Norumbegans (the winning race from the first book) to enlist their help in dealing with the rule-breaking Thusser (whom the boys fought in the second volume). Trouble is, the Norumbegans turn out to be very slimy indeed: far from heroic, far from helpful and far from admirable. In some senses, they are literally slimy, since their entire empire exists within what appears to be a colossal body of some sort, possibly a dead one or possibly one functioning on so vast a time scale that those living inside it, essentially as parasites, cannot possibly figure out what the creature is doing. This is a very clever setup, not entirely original but handled in some very original ways, and often with Anderson’s peculiar sense of humor slipping in at what seem to be inopportune moments, as when one character explains to the boys, “‘There are seven major fluids in the Great Body: ichor, yellow bile, the hard aliment, the sublime aliment, flux, lux effluvium, and brunch.’” Anderson layers plot upon plot here, mingling them skillfully: the old robots-rebelling-against-their-masters notion is made more complicated by the robotic creatures being more admirable than the snooty backstabbers whose ancestors long ago created intelligent artificial beings but who themselves have long since lost the ability to do so. Also here are some court-and-courtiers parody, some “can anyone here be trusted?” plot elements, and a murder mystery. Complex and convoluted, the plot ends up coming together rather neatly – or rather, the multiple plots are well assembled by Anderson, and even if the seams sometimes show at the joinings, there is enough fun and adventure here so readers will sweep by the occasional awkwardness and barely notice it. By the end of The Empire of Gut and Bone, readers will have a good sense of where Anderson is going – a better sense than he seemed to have himself in the earlier books. All signs point to the conclusion of The Norumbegan Quartet being a real winner.
Movie for Dogs, originally published last year and now available in paperback, is not a winner at this level, but this (+++) book will be fun for readers who enjoyed its predecessors, Hotel for Dogs and News for Dogs. Lois Duncan’s summertime story has Bruce and his sister, Andi, learning about a filmmaking contest whose theme is dogs, and deciding to make Red Rover a celluloid star. The plot requires Bruce and Andi to get through a scam perpetrated by their nemesis, Jerry Gordon; some serious competition from an unexpected source; and some pushy Hollywood types, who keep getting on the kids’ nerves. There is certainly nothing wrong with this combination of familiar plot, familiar characters, a twist in which the bad guys almost get away with their evil scheme, and of course a feel-good ending. Readers of the two previous books will enjoy this one, even if they realize it is no more than another variation on the same theme presented in the first two books. In fact, that may be the biggest attraction of Movie for Dogs: like a Hollywood film sequel, it provides nothing very unusual or surprising, but lets fans revisit familiar territory that they have already decided they want to see again.